It’s a bit like the question Hamlet faced, “to be not to be”, the bearer of apology, explanation, or faintly-heard voice of the community that confronts the Urdu media. This fundamental uncertainty about its identity has long dogged the industry. Normally, such questions should not be an issue at all, as its defined job is to report the news, but circumstances have led it to behave like a coy bride reluctant to remove her veil and show her real face.

The unspoken compulsions that have resulted in its abstention from the cut and thrust of shared debate and discord that afflicts society in general have also taken it down a road of informal defence counsel for the Muslim community. That is a view shared not only by the general reader but also by intellectual leaders and other experts.     

So the Urdu press seems to have decided—after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992—to be the voice of the Muslim community, to express the communal angst in these difficult times, to bear witness to the things that affect Muslims but are ignored by other language media. By doing so, it is exercising all the options listed above.

That should not be so, says Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, one of the greatest men of letters in modern Urdu. The media is not for Muslims alone. “Many Urdu readers are non-Muslims and I don’t agree with this widespread notion that it’s the language of Muslims. Of course, one of the reasons for this view is that Urdu newspapers and magazines are full of stuff about Islam.” He notes that non-faith journals should not be obsessed with religion when there are so many other things to reflect about.

It’s true that the Urdu media faces a peculiar dilemma as it has, almost against its will, become a clearing house for Islamic identity, thought, culture, values and the challenges of modernity that Muslims confront. It expends a lot of space on explanations and clarifications in these matters. That is why it sometime reads like a community

But this kind of thing shouldn’t be dismissed as reactionary diatribe, according to former Uttar Pradesh advocate-general S. M. A. Kazmi. It’s essential to confront some types of statements that affect the community in general. “For instance, if someone says everyone who lives in Hindustan is necessarily a Hindu, it’s an assertion that must be challenged. Who, then, is a Muslim?”

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi begs to differ. “Rejoinders of this kind are a product of ignorance, of language, history, culture,” he says. “It’s sad that the media is reduced to this. Until the 18th century, ‘Hindu’ did actually mean Indian. It was the English who used the word gentoo for Hindus but this was changed to ‘Hindu’ later on,”

He clarifies, however, that “Hindu in this context doesn’t mean going to temples or breaking coconuts. We live in this land so we’re Hindu. (RSS chief) Mohan Bhagwat is not saying anything new and there’s no need for a rejoinder. I believe also that we should look at the good side of things but unfortunately this is being seriously violated by the media.”

Serious students of Islam feel the Urdu media has taken on a sort of missionary role, presenting itself as the final word on everything to do with the religion. Urdu newspapers take it as a fact that Indian Muslims have forgotten the rules of their faith, indeed are even ignorant of its first principles.

A large section of Urdu readers are convinced that the Hindi media is full of preconceptions and prejudices, and that now even the English media—print and electronic—has joined in. The celebratory fashion in which they presented the BJP victory in the 2014 elections left many Muslims aghast.

Novelist Asrar Gandhi says it’s as if the Hindi media is for Hindus and Urdu for Muslims alone. It’s no wonder that when they feel ignored or sidelined by the English and Hindi media they turn to Urdu for a hearing. It’s reached a stage where the Hindi press downplays the achievements of Muslim sportsmen. The pro-Hindutva stance of several English language dailies has Muslim intellectuals tearing at their hair; the general lack of media support these days for Palestine is causing particular anguish.

Educated Muslims agree that the Urdu media has a number of shortcomings, including poor language skills, an ignorance of the basics of culture and history, and slow and late reportage, but that it does tell the story of the injustices being visited upon the community. It has forcefully challenged baseless allegations, whether it is “love jihad” or something else.

Most readers also believe that the Urdu media has never taken an adversary position against Hindus, nor has it ever embraced inflammatory rhetoric or espoused extremist causes. Despite its various shortcomings, it does work of value. Kazmi says the big Urdu newspapers present the better faces of Islam, something that is essential for community reform. That is in tune with the Constitution which gives every citizen the inalienable right to observe their religious edicts freely.

But discerning observers are worried at the growing distance between the media and readers. A new generation of reader is no longer interested in Urdu newspapers. Kazmi sees a disconnect from the economy as one reason. Another is the shrinking of its reach, and the scattering of community leadership has not helped cohesion either. Both segments of the leadership—religious and political-administrative—seem to have little in common, a fact that is reflected in editorial opinion. Where the politicians are concerned, either they have no voice at all or there’s no restraint in their rhetoric, which is often communally toxic. Unfortunately, even this segment finds a platform in the Urdu media. As a result, it is unfairly pilloried for reporting their views.

A peculiar feature of the electronic media is that the people who run it are mostly non-Muslim. The consequence of that fact is that it provides mostly finger food, in the form of the news flash, chat shows, and some community information. Serious discussion on any matter of substance is conspicuous by its absence. It has no place for such things.

In the process it has consciously distanced itself from any position of intellectual leadership. To be fair, the electronic media has its own set of problems, weaknesses and delusions. Then there are political and commercial pressures as well. Independent media can’t be quite independent of the market and it has made its peace with that situation. Indeed, there’s been little or no resistance to its seductions.

“Urdu media is exactly like its Hindi and English counterparts,” says Asrar Gandhi. “Paid news is a fact here too. And the market is extracting its pound of flesh without fail. News is being deliberately packaged for sale to the consumer. That’s the new audience, the real target, not the mere viewer.”


Translated from Hindi by
G. K. Rao.